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Repost: April Showers Bring Poetry Pitter Patters: My Favorite Poems and Why They Resonate

Repost: April Showers Bring Poetry Pitter Patters: My Favorite Poems and Why They Resonate

This blog post originally appeared on The Huffington Post

It’s April, and while that means more rain showers, it also means it’s time to recognize a literary style “in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm”. Or, simply put, poetry!

In honor of National Poetry Month, I would like to present these 4 poems that not only resonate deeply with me, but have also helped to inform my work with my clients.

One of the beauties of poetry, I think, is that there is no single meaning to any one poem. The poet pens a narrative in verse that can be interpreted in all ways; I would even go so far as to say that a reader of poetry projects upon a poem what he/she needs in that given moment. The interpretation is never static, and likely the reader will experience something different with each reading or recitation. So, if it stirs something within you right now – and moves you to greater awareness of self, others, and the world – then honor those things!

Vulnerable alert: These works have seen me through difficult times. As my post-doc and a romantic relationship were both simultaneously coming to an end in 2010, the feeling of loss led me to these poems. I recited them every time I needed a reminder that not only was it was okay to feel every iteration of my feelings, but that those feelings were also healthy, and important – serving as a springboard for new endeavors and a greater openness to identifying, and then saying yes to, those things I desired that were beyond my comfort zone.

Reciting the poems, as I power-walked around the Charles River, comforted me, and also allowed me to notice and feel the pain of confronting the changes in my life. The more I recited, the more I let myself feel, and the more facile it became to just put one foot in front of another, trusting that those small steps would lead me to my somewhere new. The words reverberated over and over until I found my way towards healing.

There is much to be learned from a poetic journey inward. I hope that one, or more, of these poems bring you some of the peace that they have brought me.

 

1. The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice—

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do—

determined to save

the only life you could save.

Why it resonates:

The Journey resonates with me because it speaks to the idea of individuation and separation.

It is hard for most of us to leave our family of origin, mentally speaking. It’s a challenge to go out into the world, without the protection and grounded-ness that our primary attachment figures provided (if we were lucky enough) when we were younger. It is also just as hard, because despite wanting to “become ourselves” as individual entities, we often stay enmeshed in the maladaptive patterns of our ancestry. Their traumas, and subsequent triggers, sometimes become ours, and though we want to shed those layers from our own psyches, it is what we know – the familiarity is resoundingly comforting.

My clients and I have learned that we sometimes make unconscious agreements with ourselves to hold on to the pain, until we realize we can’t breathe from the bearing of it, and we need to let go of it in order to save ourselves.

2. Autobiography in Five Chapters

by Portia Nelson

I

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk

I fall in.

I am lost…

I am hopeless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I’m in the same place.

But it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in…it’s a habit

My eyes are open; I know where I am;

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

Why it resonates:

Both personally and professionally I know so well that change is hard. Actually, that’s the understatement of the day! When we have engaged with certain unhealthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors for a long time, the path towards wellness takes extra patience, perseverance, time, and trust. This poem resonates for me because it reflects a sequence of change that is authentic.

Portia beings by speaking to the deeply painful reckoning with bumps in the road. Then, she begins to recognize patterns that might be holding her back, but does so with a gentle nudge and compassion for herself. She continues by putting just one step in front of the other, supporting herself through each step, not blind to the challenges, but not beating herself up either for the slow progress, which includes literally falling into the same old maladaptive patterns.

She recognizes that patterns are like habits, accumulations of ways of being and showing up in a world that used to work for us, and that most likely previously protected us from our pain. Ultimately, she finds a new path. This doesn’t mean her journey is over. In fact, in some ways, it has just begun.

3. The Guest House

by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Why it resonates:

Rumi, the Sufi poet, waxed poetic in his ‘The Guest House’ a long time ago about how we should treat every emotion as a visitor, without looking to get rid of any of them, but rather to understand their message and purpose.

Emotions are neither inherently good nor bad, and to think of them in such dichotomous terms is to do oneself a disservice. Emotions just are. In fact, every emotion tells us something about our inner experience that might be informing our outer experience.

What Rumi alluded to in his writing was also recently confirmed by research (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/negative-emotions-key-well-being/) – which indicated that well-being is actually predicated on having a wider range of emotions, including the negative ones! Yes, that’s correct, the more you can feel, in all of feeling’s iterations, the better off you are.

While relaxation is a beneficial byproduct of mindfulness practice, its salutary effects are associated with the ability to help us expose ourselves to our emotions, to truly feel them, with compassion and as little judgment as possible. That’s why techniques like mindfulness have gained anecdotal significance, and their effectiveness is being confirmed through rigorous research.

4. Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Why it resonates:

We are socialized from a young age to think that being “good” means that we will be rewarded. What does “good” really mean though? The need to “be good” for the sake of approval, or the idea that one needs to repent to be redeemed, is immediately refuted here. How do we differentiate our own moral compass, and being a “good” person versus a “bad” person, from how other people interpret “good” and “bad”? When we try to base our actions on other people’s definitions, it can often lead to stifling expectations and guilt, which leads to deep suffering.

This poem, perhaps, then, speaks to a freedom that defies the need to be “good” as a way out of punishment or scorn by others. In this poem, Mary Oliver invites us to shed the shackles we so often place upon ourselves for the sake of pleasing others. She makes room for us to let go of that, to fully embrace our essence, without judging it, without labeling it good or bad or right or wrong.

There is a chance for catharsis here, as we let ourselves connect to the “soft animals of our body”. Beyond the layers of somatic tension, clenching, and a protective posturing, is softness. The soft part of ourselves doesn’t need to hide. We shouldn’t deny what we love or whom we love or how we love.

To me, the most poignant part of this poem is the invitation to shed those limiting layers, and to look at the bigger and grander picture; that is, all of us, every living creature, are immortally bound by our smallness and bigness all at once. Perhaps, this collective truth is the most healing of them all.

You may have noticed that two of the poems I shared are from Mary Oliver’s oeuvre. I tried to be more diverse in my choices, but Mary has become a role model and mentor (read-she doesn’t know who I am!) for me in my own journey as a poet. A few years ago I attended one of Mary Oliver’s rare readings and signings at the 92nd Street Y and scored this!

Buy more of Mary Oliver’s poetry here

~

Sometimes the only way out of a trying situation or time in our life, is to journey inward, and a great place to start is by peering into a poet’s own journey. I hope that one, or more, of these poems bring you some of the peace that they have brought me.

Repost: 3 Ways Mindfulness Can Improve Your Relationships

Repost: 3 Ways Mindfulness Can Improve Your Relationships

This blog post originally appeared on About Meditation.

Do you ever struggle to connect or communicate with your partner? I mean, who doesn’t?

But what a lot of people don’t know is that brain science shows that practicing mindfulness can help you in this area of life.

You see, mindfulness is much more than meditation. It’s more like a fundamental approach to life.

Mindfulness Improves Relationships

It starts with choosing to become more aware of how we show up in life and making conscious choices about what our presence looks and feels like in each moment.

All of this can inform the way we are as individuals in our relationships.

How is that?

Because mindfulness can help you cultivate healthier relationships through stress reduction, enhanced emotion-regulation abilities, and honed communication skills (Among other ways I am sure)!

1. Stress reduction

We’ve all experienced that moment when we are so stressed that the little things start to bother us. Stress increases our irritability levels, and then inconsequential things start to elicit reactivity.

I know you know what I’m talking about…

Mindfulness meditation can help reduce stress, and consequently, make each individual in a relationship less likely to argue about the little things that—oftentimes unnecessarily—blow up into big things.

Here’s one quick mindfulness exercise to help you in moments like that. Try this stress-busting breathing with your partner.

2. Enhanced Emotion Regulation

It’s becoming clearer to researchers that practicing mindfulness meditation can help us regulate our emotions, and lash out less at one another!

How does that work?

Studies show that practicing mindfulness meditation decreases the grey-matter volume of the amygdala—the fear center of the brain—and increases the grey-matter volume of our pre-frontal cortex.

That’s the part of the brain responsible for forethought, and what we call “higher order” functions.

But it doesn’t stop there. Mindfulness meditation is also associated with increased connection between the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex. This leads to greater integration of our emotions and intellect.

How This Can Help Your Relationship

But you might be wondering, how does this help us? Here’s an example.

When our partner says something we don’t like, it’s plausible that instead of thinking it through, we feel threatened. That activates the amygdala that readies us to attack back.

In truth, much of the time when our partner “acts out” it’s from a place of their own insecurity, and their own deep-rooted pain.

So instead of impulsively trying to attack back from one’s own “wounded place,” try responding with compassion for all of the pain both of you are experiencing by truly listening and then responding from a place that is less fear-based.

Slowly, but steadily, we can work together with our partner to decrease our amygdala volume!

3. Honed Communication Skills

Now, imagine that instead of immediately reacting based on fear, we take a moment to pause and reflect on why we feel threatened and then proceed to respond with more kindness.

We can then start to imagine that our significant other also has their own insecurities and hot-button issues. It’s hard, but imagine if each individual in a partnership practiced taking a few breaths before lashing out and attacking in return and instead responded with a calmer and less defensive demeanor.

We’d actually give one another the space to be heard, and the opportunity to communicate without our armor. WOW.

But how do we do this?

Each partner works on becoming more attuned to their own emotional landscape by starting to understand what triggers them most, and why.

For example, someone might immediately be on the attack if her significant other calls to say that they will be late to dinner. It’s important to understand why that call felt so threatening that it resulted in anger and lashing out.

Perhaps, and this is just an example, it taps into someone’s deeper fear of being abandoned by their partner. If possible, cultivate compassion for oneself for experiencing such deep pain, and even needing to be on the defensive.

This takes time, and it’s a process…one that is often worked upon in therapy.

A Mindful Listening Exercise

Then, maybe try THIS:

Mindful listening is a core element of healthy communication.

Really taking the time to listen to how the other feels, without immediately and sometimes impulsively reacting, creates the space for both parties to feel heard and then to show up in kind with a more mindful ear.

I recommend you set a timer for five minutes. Then one partner begins to speak about whatever they would like (this isn’t the time to attack the other, this is just about practicing uninterrupted listening), which can include how they feel about the relationship or about anything at all.

Non-verbal responses are permitted from the listening part, but no verbal response of any kind.

Then, when the timer goes off switch roles so that the speaker now becomes the listener. Each time you practice the exercise, switch off who starts being the initial listener and vice versa.

Five Strategies to Help Us Help Our Children And Ourselves In Times of Trauma

Five Strategies to Help Us Help Our Children And Ourselves In Times of Trauma

 

In honor of PTSD Awareness Month, and in response to the tragedy in Orlando, I offer five ways to help us help our children and ourselves in times of trauma.

kid

  1. Give Yourself Permission to Feel Many Emotions at Different Times:

One of the core concepts of mindfulness meditation is the idea of having an attitude of non-judgment of, and openness towards, current experiences. After a tragedy, it is natural to react with shock, anger, numbness, sadness, grief, confusion, and even denial. Most often, grieving is not a linear process and you might experience yourself fluctuating between different feelings at different times, on different days and during different weeks. It is okay. Allow yourself to feel what you feel with as little judgment as possible.

  1. Take Care of Yourself, Then Take Care of Others:

This is true on any given day, but most importantly at a time like this. If you are anxious and your symptoms continue to persist, please reach out for support/professional guidance. More than ever, make a point to engage in your usual routine. Eat well and sleep well. Engage in healthy coping strategies (breath from your diaphragm, take a bath, journal, watch a comedy, create your own safe space and let yourself cry). Managing your own stress is a precursor to helping your children manage theirs.

  1. Create a Sense of Safety:

For most children, their parents symbolize safety. In times of doubt, children look to their primary attachment figures to cultivate a safe space. Let your children know you are available if they have questions and actively make yourselves available. Children don’t yet have the same cognitive tools needed to cope. Model resilience in the face of hardship without denying that hardship.

  1. Recognize, Be Real, But Reassure:

It is important to recognize signs of your children’s distress. Sometimes it is not obvious, as fear and anxiety might manifest as physical symptoms (stomach aches and headaches) and/or insomnia (and other sleep difficulties). Children, especially teens, might isolate and/or withdraw. Recognize the pain. Then, it is important to be real with your children. Limited media exposure is a crucial element, but on the flipside, children need to know what happened. If your children do not approach you, take the time to find out what kinds of questions they are having and what kinds of feelings they are experiencing. Use discretion (talk to them in an age-appropriate way) and be honest about what is happening; it is important not to deny the events. After honest, but age-appropriate and discrete discussion, reassure your children’s sense of safety. At this juncture, they are internalizing and probably deeply personalizing the events, wondering “when will something happen to ME.” Reassure through returning to normal routine and sending messages of safety overall. Keep life feeling as safe and predictable as possible under the circumstances.

  1. Reassess and Regroup:

Different people, of different ages, express trauma differently, at different times. The reaction to trauma will vary greatly. One thing, however, is for sure: The effects of trauma don’t go away easily. They might remit or decrease in severity, but they usually ebb and flow for a very long time.Healing is possible and there is hope amidst this gripping grief.  As children develop they will adopt more evolved coping skills in order to adapt, and ideally the appropriate acute treatment will serve as a tool to cultivate increased resilience as time goes on. Yet, continue to reassess and regroup. It is important to continue to check in with yourself and your children if symptoms reemerge, or if other traumatic circumstances arise.

*If you need a referral to a trauma specialist, please contact me at DrWolkin@BrainCurves.com.

To Healing,

Jennifer Wolkin, PhD

 

 

 

I Am Every Woman

I Am Every Woman

 

WomenSymbol2

I am every woman
who serves our country on the front lines
of trauma
who goes through puberty
awkward ashamed and framed
by mother nature
who feels stigmatized or satirized
as latter-day hysterics
made to think it is all in our heads
and

you are every woman
who gives birth to a hungry child
in war-torn Africa
who loses an ovary
or a breast or a uterus
to cancer or just to life
who cycles as each mood
is manifested by screaming hormones
and

she is every woman
who drinks to numb the pain
of post-partum lows
who feels betrayed by the body
as she ages physically but not in spirit
who binges and starves
behind society’s billboard of expectations
but

we are every woman
who dreams outside
of the box
who prays
eyes closed lips moving
who cries viscerally
laying in a fetal position
from a broken heart
or mind or body or soul
but

we are every woman who rises up-

every time. everywhere.

***

Who is a woman you are grateful for?  Look up to?  Respect? Tell us about the special woman in your lives and why they are EVERY Woman…

Let’s Thrive,

Dr. Jen